Category Archives: YA Literature


by Chris Crutcher, 1986

Classification:  YA Fiction

Genre:  Realistic/Issues

Age Level:  14+

Subjects:  Friendship, teams, high school

Reader’s annotation:  Four high school swimmers volunteer for a grueling week of training in preparation for their final season as a team.

Main characters:  Walter Dupree (narrator), has older parents who are not much involved in his life
Nortie Wheeler, works with young kids at a daycare
Jeff Hawkins, formerly with the Marine reserves
Lionel “Lion” Serbousek, an orphan who lives alone in a run-down apartment
Max Il Song, swim coach, Korean
Elaine, also a swimmer, friend of the team
Devnee, Walker’s girlfriend
Marty O’Brian, a schoolmate who promotes a local newsletter called “Aryan Press”
Gail Stevens, school administrator

Summary:  Frost High School swimming coach Max Il Song devises a challenge for his four man team:  Stotan Week, in which each athlete will strive to become a cross between a Stoic and a Spartan.  Together, best friends and teammates Walker, Nortie, Jeff and Lion push themselves past their known limits and find not only a higher level of athletic performance but also a deeper understanding of life and friendship.

Controversial content:  Racism, violence, child abuse.

Also by Chris Crutcher:  Running Loose, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes




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Running Loose

by Chris Crutcher, 1983

Classification:  YA Fiction

Genre:  Realistic/Issues

Age Level:  14+

Subjects:  Sportsmanship, love, death and friendship

Reader’s annotation:  In this coming of age story set in a small Idaho town, Louie Banks learns how lives are set by fleeting moments and seemingly simple decisions.

Main characters: Louie Banks, a football player

Carter, another football player, Louie’s best friend & role model

Coach Lednecky, the football coach who believes in winning no matter the cost

Boomer Cowans, a fellow football player who has no problem playing dirty

Becky Sanders, Louie’s long-time crush

Summary: Louie is a student athlete at Trout High School, a small town school with a student body of less than 125 students.  He is devoted to football until Coach Lednecky asks the team to carry out an illegal move that will injure Washington, the rival’s team best player who happens to be African American.  When Boomer follows through with the coach’s orders, Louie doesn’t hesitate to unmask Coach Lednecky, challenging the older man’s leadership and hinting at the deeper issue of racism.  But Louie’s concerns fall on deaf ears and win him no love with the rest of the team.  Convinced he did the right thing, Louie accepts the consequences of his actions.  In fact, when he’s kicked off the team, Louie manages just fine without football because he has Becky, a beautiful cheerleader and loyal friend, and a part-time job cleaning up at the Buckhorn, a local bar.  But when Louie’s life takes a tragic turn he must confront the reality that his actions have effects that he could never anticipate.

Controversial content: Underage drinking, sexuality, verbal and physical violence, strong language

Also by Chris Crutcher:  Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes


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Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes

by Chris Crutcher, 1993

Classification:  YA Fiction

Genre: Realistic/Issues

Age Level: 13+

Subjects:  Competition/High school sports, friendship, high school, freedom of speech/expression

Reader’s Annotation:  When his best friend suddenly stops speaking, Eric “Moby” Calhoune knows something terrible is going on and he is determined to help her through it.

Main characters:    Eric Calhoune, narrator, earned the nickname “Moby” because prior to joining the swim team he was overweight
Sarah Byrnes, terribly scarred from a childhood accident, Eric’s best friend, suddenly stops speaking and is a patient at the hospital
Sandy Calhoune, Eric’s mother who works as a writer for the local newspaper
Carver Middleton, Sandy’s boyfriend
Virgil Byrnes, Sarah’s sinister, overbearing father
Mr. Mautz, school administrator
Ms. Lemry, English teacher and swim coach
Dale Thornton, middle school bully with whom Sarah Byrnes forged a tentative friendship
Steve Ellerby, a fellow swimmer and friend of Eric’s, father is a preacher
Mark Brittan, a swimmer and model student, Christian
Jody Mueller, Mark’s girlfriend who breaks things off to pursue Eric

Summary:  Sarah Byrnes refuses to speak but her best friend Eric Calhoune still knows how to communicate with her.  To get to the bottom of the mystery that has become his friend, Eric seeks the insight of former school bully Dale Thornton and discovers a shocking secret.  Meanwhile, during Ms. Lemry’s Contemporary American Thought class, yet more secrets are uncovered, this time about Eric’s swimming rival, the seemingly perfect Mark Brittan.  As the revelations pile up, the time to take action draws near, but with an unsympathetic school administrator and two different but equally determined fathers standing in the way, can anyone get the help they need?

Controversial content:  Abortion, suicide, child abuse, fundamentalism

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Speech Team Memories & Bitter Melon

The first place trophy that came as such a surprise. (No, it doesn't live on my bookshelf anymore. I dug it out of a box in the garage specifically so I could post this photo.)

Many of my best memories of high school come from experiences on speech team.  There are the crystal clear memories:  scanning elimination lists, late-night dinners at Denny’s, my shock at winning my first ever tournament, and an incident mid-round involving my best friend/duo interpretation partner and a pair of pantyhose.  There are also the fuzzier images:  the judge with the pig tie, the record store near UC Berkley, the always cold classrooms.

Some years later, when I was a teacher, I chaperoned the speech team on a weekend invitational tournament.  That experience was not nearly as fun but my respect and admiration for my coach and moderator increased exponentially (Kristi Balleweg and Eileen DeBruno are forever my heroes!).

All these memories came back to me in a rush when I read Bitter Melon by Cara Chow.  The main character, Frances Ching, attends an all-girls prep school and joins the speech team at her teacher’s encouragement.  A former “speechie” herself, the author does an excellent job describing how it feels to enter an unfamiliar classroom, select a seat, size up the judge, psych out the competition.  Chow gets the roller coaster of nervousness and confidence just right.   And the trophy!  The brassy, hollow treasure that means both everything and nothing.

But Bitter Melon offers up more than just a glimpse into the geeky world of high school speech and debate.  The novel is as good as any Amy Tan book for its exploration of mother/daughter relationships and themes of loyalty to self and family.

Because the story is set in the 1989-1990 school year, there’s no internet or texting for these teens.  Frances and her peers pass notes on paper and share corded wall phones with their parents.  They also use AquaNet and the President Bush they refer to isn’t W.  The only period detail Chow is missing is the DJ spinning “My Prerogative” or “Straight Up” at one of the dances.  This is a great read for present day teens or for a child of the 80s.  Looking forward to more from this debut author!

Bitter Melon 

By Cara Chow

EgmontUSA, 2010

Classification:  YA Fiction

Genre:  Realistic

Age Level:   12+

Subjects: Mothers & daughters, Chinese Americans, high school, academics, speech & debate


Fei Ting “Frances” Ching—hard-working, loyal daughter; a self-conscious loner

Gracie—a strict Chinese mom who wants her daughter to succeed in life

Theresa—Frances’ classmate, also Chinese

Nellie—Theresa’s mom and Gracie’s best friend

Ms. Taylor—a young, new teacher at Frances & Theresa’s school

Derek Collins—a boy Frances first meets at an SAT prep class who later turns out to be her biggest competition at speech tournaments

Summary:  Gracie Ching wants her only daughter, Frances, to attend UC Berkley and then go on to medical school.  Gracie works long hours at a low-paying job to afford tuition at a private girls school and she has Frances’ entire academic future planned out.  Now in her senior year, Frances has grown tired of her mother’s unrelenting pressure so when she accidentally enrolls in speech instead of AP Calculus, she doesn’t bother to change classes.  In fact, Frances kind of likes speech.  And her teacher, Ms. Taylor assures her she’s good at it.  At Ms. Taylor’s encouragement and with help on the homefront from fellow overachiever Theresa, Frances begins to find her own voice.  But will Gracie listen to what her daughter has to say?

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Chris Crutcher

After years of reading the works of dead people (both literally and figuratively—Barthes’ “The Death of the Author,” anyone?), I finally made the incredible discovery that a living author who is accessible to readers can contribute an amazing new dimension to the dialogue about a story, offering a layered experience of reading and understanding.  When I was coordinating a research project on the works of Chris Crutcher last semester, I was thrilled to correspond with him about his work as a therapist and an author and to get his take on recent incidents of “bullycide.”

Next week—January 24-28, 2011—is No Name Calling Week and because Chris Crutcher’s books usually deal with themes of bullying and harassment, I am going to post summaries of some of his books over the next several weeks.

Some info about the author:

Crutcher has been writing for young adults for three decades and is therefore a fixture in the genre of the young adult problem novel.  His writing is witty and sarcastic and particularly appealing to the reluctant adolescent male reader.  He incorporates sports into every one of his stories, delving deeply into the mind of the athlete, and within the entire body of his work, Crutcher features every major high school sport.

Crutcher’s books are frequently challenged or banned primarily for their religious perspective, homosexual content, sexual content, offensive language, or suicide.  Crutcher calls these “human things” and he continually expresses his concern about the ways in which these human things are avoided in conversations with young people.  He writes these elements into his books for the purposes of opening up dialogue.   He believes that talking about stories, talking about a character’s issues is a great way to start conversations with young people.

This video in which Crutcher talks about censorship reveals why he is such an articulate advocate for the the freedom to read.

What is truly awesome about Crutcher is the way that he personally gets involved when his books are challenged.  He writes letters, works with teachers, and even makes personal appearances.  On his own website, Crutcher provides information about challenges to his books as well as his responses.

This article discusses the most recent challenge concerning Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes.  I’ll put that title up first.  In the meantime, check out this short booklist for other titles that deal with bullying.



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Someone Like You

By Sarah Dessen
Classification: YA Literature
Genre: Realistic fiction, chick lit
Age Level: 13+
Subjects: Friendship, mothers and daughters, self-discovery, teen pregnancy

Reader’s Annotation:  In her first serious relationship and with her best friend pregnant, Halley needs to grow up quickly.

Summary:  When Halley’s best friend Scarlett finds herself pregnant in the weeks following her boyfriend’s tragic death, Halley suddenly finds herself needing to be strong for the friend she used to lean on.  And Halley needs to learn her own strength quickly, since her shady boyfriend Macon is pressuring her to have sex with him and encouraging Halley in behavior that strains the already tense relationship she has with her mother.  Balancing family, school and her social life, Halley learns for the first time how tough it can be to reconcile who she is with who she wants to be.

Notes:  The emotional depth of the characters is what makes this simple story shine.  Halley is a very accessible and believable heroine.  Content to be aware of—underage drinking, drug use.
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Scrambled Eggs at Midnight

By Brad Berkley and Heather Harper
:  YA fiction
Genre: Realistic fiction
Age Level: 13+
Subjects: Family, friendship, first love

Reader’s Annotation:  Cal and Eliot share an instant connection that soon blossoms into love, but their time together is limited by Cal’s impending cross-country move.

Summary:  Cal is increasingly resentful of her mother’s constant moving.  The two traverse the country so Delores can work as a serving wench and jewelry artisan at Renaissance Faires, taking fifteen-year-old Cal along.  Meanwhile, Eliot longs for the normalcy of his family life, something they seem to have lost as his dad has become more and more engrossed in his business venture—helping overweight people lose weight and find God.  Cal and Eliot meet by chance…or is it destiny that brings them together?  What will happen to their newfound love when Delores is ready to move again?  Or when Eliot’s dad discovers his son is associating with people he doesn’t approve of?

Notes:  This book would make a great beach read for it is a lovely, sweet summer romance story with instantly likable characters.
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The Silver Cup

By Constance Leeds
: YA Literature
Genre: Historical fiction
Age Level: 12+
Subjects:  Crusades, persecution, Christians and Jews, religion, self-discovery

Reader’s Annotation:  In medieval Germany, superstition and prejudice abound, so when young Anna takes an orphaned Jewish girl into her home, she faces open hostility from her entire village.

Summary:  The Silver Cup is set in 1095 in a small village of no more than 60 families.  The village is half a day’s travel from the city of Worms, Germany.  Anna is a hard-working 16-year-old, filled with compassion that shines through her lovely singing voice.  Unfortunately Anna’s father Gunther, still grieving for the loss of his wife, is too often away from home to conduct trading to notice much about his daughter.  Anna’s Aunt Agnes has nothing kind to say about her late sister’s daughter.  To Agnes, Anna is a burden, neither a competent housekeeper nor a worthy match for any of the young men of the village.  So there has been little joy in Anna’s life when a horrific massacre takes place in Worms.  Anna, stunned by the slaughter, rescues Leah, a young Jewish girl, and takes her into her home.  As a result, Anna is completely ostracized by her family and the rest of the village, yet discovers her first friend in Leah.  Remarkably, as she heals from her ordeal, Leah brings laughter and hope to Anna and Gunther’s home, and they each find the strength to face an uncertain future.

Notes:  This historical novel, with its engaging characters, is a great read that illuminates a kind of prejudice that persists in our modern world.
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The Shadow in the North

By Philip Pullman
Classification: YA fiction
Genre: Mystery
Age Level: 13+
Subjects: Women’s rights, weapons, warfare, technology, spiritualism

Reader’s Annotation:  Sally Lockhart encounters unspeakable evil when she investigates the business ventures of Axel Bellmann.

Summary:  In 1878 London, Sally Lockhart is undeniably unconventional.  Self-employed as a financial consultant, Sally is devastated when a client loses her money after investing on Sally’s advice.  Turning her devastation to recover her client’s money, Sally enlists the help of friends Jim Taylor and Frederick Garland to investigate the enterprises of the elusive businessman Axel Bellmann.  As the friends dig deeper and deeper, encountering illusionists, spiritualists, fraud and murder, they uncover a sinister plan involving weapons technology and find themselves all in mortal danger.

Notes:  This novel is the second book of the Sally Lockhart trilogy.  Books one and three, respectively are The Ruby in the Smoke and The Tiger in the Well.  Sally is 22 years old in this book, so not technically a teen heroine (though she is a teen in Book 1), but it is a very provocative book, treating themes still relevant more than a century after the book’s setting.
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Pretty Little Liars

By Sara Shepard
Classification:  YA Fiction
Genre: Chick lit, mystery
Age Level: 14+
Subjects: Friendship, relationships, high school

Reader’s Annotation:  Hanna, Aria, Emily and Spencer all thought they had moved beyond the dark period in their past when their friend Alison disappeared, but out of the blue someone called “A” enters their lives and refuses to let the girls forget.

Summary:  Three years after Alison’s disappearance her four best friends, Hanna, Aria, Emily, and Spencer, have grown apart yet are still haunted by their memories of the daring stunts and dark secrets they shared with their vibrant friend.  Suddenly, as the girls begin their junior year of high school, they are each contacted by someone called “A.”  Through text messages, notes and emails, the girls find that their secrets have not vanished.  So just who is A?  What does A want from Hanna, Aria, Emily and Spencer?

Notes:  Book one of series.  Content to be aware of—underage drinking, drug use, sexuality.  This book reads like a prequel or a pilot episode, laying the foundation for the rest of the series, so many plot developments are not resolved by the end of this book.
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